Leaders look for ways to get Chattanoogans out of their cars and off the highways

by allison shirk collins, CHATTANOOGA times free press

 
 
 
Photo: Erin O. Smith

Photo: Erin O. Smith

Forty-four percent of those employed in Hamilton County commute from outside of the county, 120,000 vehicles were estimated to travel through downtown Chattanooga each day on Interstate 24 in 2016 and 33 million tons of freight is expected to travel through the Chattanooga area per year by 2035 — up from 25 million tons, according to data provided by Thrive Regional Partnership. Estimates show that by 2040, nearly 1.4 million people will call the greater Chattanooga area home.

All of that sounds really good for the economy but really bad for the existing roads, officials say. The I-24/U.S. Highway 27 interchange has already been ranked the 11th worst freight gridlock in America and the first in the state of Tennessee, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

Making roads bigger will take years and funds that could be used elsewhere if Thrive officials and other area agencies and business leaders can convince more people to find alternative ways to get to work. When it comes to workforce mobility in the future, members of a year-long "Transportation Collaborative" provided recommendations, including building a digital platform to access information on all modes of mobility such as mass transit, walking, biking and car-sharing solutions; creating an app that tells drivers what backroads to take instead of the interstate; more employers providing telecommuting options, or creating a network of co-working centers across the region to share resources and function as work spaces.

"We talk about congestion at peak times of the day ... we talk about spending millions, billions of dollars to fix that instead of talking about the behavior patterns of the people that are using that infrastructure during the peak times of day and what we can do now instead of waiting years for millions or billions of dollars to be spent," said Thrive President and CEO Bridgett Massengill.

Let’s start looking at the behavior patterns that can hopefully help to alleviate some of this and save our public dollars a tremendous amount by just keeping up with the future of the workforce.
— Bridgett Massengill, President and CEO of Thrive Regional Partnership

"What is life going to be like 20 years down the road?" she asked. "Let's start looking at the behavior patterns that can hopefully help to alleviate some of this and save our public dollars a tremendous amount by just keeping up with the future of the workforce."

The collaborative was convened by Thrive and consisted of more than 30 local business leaders and public officials from Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Members are a part of city and county governments, development agencies, industries, like trucking and logistics, food, health care and more. Thrive is a nonprofit focused on promoting responsible growth for the next 40 years through the tri-state Chattanooga region, which includes working with 16 counties in three different states and three different metropolitan planning organizations — no small feat.

The approach requires looking at the "big picture," Massengill explains. But in Hamilton County — where the public transportation ridership for commuters is only at 1 percent and nearly 83 percent of commuters drive solo to work, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures — convincing employees and employers could be difficult.